According to the dictionary definition of whitewashing, to whitewash is to change or conceal an object to perfect it or improve it. However, we more commonly understand whitewashing to be when an actor who is of Caucasian descent portrays a character who is not. Whitewashing films and TV shows contributes to the ongoing misrepresentation of identities, experiences, and perspectives within media and culture, thereby influencing cross-identity interactions within the real world.
To start, the first ever movie, The Birth of a Nation (1915), to be screened at the White House was a film that demonized African Americans and glorified the Ku Klux Klan. Many may point out that over a century has passed since then and the film industry has become more inclusive and diverse. But to make matters worse, instead of casting a Black actor for the proper role, blackface was used on White Actors. Blackface is when makeup is used on a non-Black performer playing a Black role. However, 100 years later, the same story is told. Only this time, the roles were cast properly.
Moreover, the casting decisions in the recently released Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) caused an uproar for its blatant whitewashing. Set in 18th Century Egypt, and as per historian records, Pharaohs had “brown” or “very dark” skin. The roles in Exodus: Gods and Kings did not reflect this. In fact, the major characters were white with Ramses II played by Joel Edgerton, and Christian Bale as Moses. When director Ridley Scott was questioned about his call in casting the lead roles as white actors, he bluntly answered, “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”
Thus, though many would believe that Hollywood has become more diverse and conscious of its representation biases, the reality is that the motives for these casting decisions have changed but representation has not. Whereas Birth of a Nation (1915) was outwardly motivated by racism and racial subjugation, recent films are motivated by capitalist demands, which have devalued people of colour and deemed them less profitable.
Clearly, this is a rampant and longstanding issue. Earlier film adaptations of Othello featured a white male, despite the fact that the Shakespearean production features black actors. Films like the Ten Commandments featured an all-white cast, despite being set once again, in Ancient Egypt. In recent films like The Great Wall and Ghost in the Shell, white actors play the roles of famous Asian characters. This brief history shows that whitewashing has existed since the early beginnings of film and continues to subtly exist under different pretenses.
Whitewashing has been happening so often that it has turned into the default in media and film representation. This leads to unhealthy racial expectations and concepts. The misrepresentation of cultures and races in films can cause many problems, such as psychological and emotional issues, specifically for children.
But to what extent does media misrepresentation impact events in the real world? Psychologists Kenneth and Mamrie Clark conducted a famous study called the Black Doll Study. In this study, children were given two dolls that only differed by their skin colour, they found that children often chose the white doll when asked questions like “ Which doll would you prefer?” or “Which doll seems nicer?” The conclusions of their study demonstrated that children (both white and black) develop stereotypes about races early on because of their representation in the media and television they consume.
If we look at Disney’s “Princess Line-Up.” among thirteen princesses, you should notice the ratio of four princesses of colour to nine White princesses. Though many will argue that this happens simply to match the films’ settings and maintain authenticity, it is important to remember that Disney chooses to set most of their films in Europe. This is despite the longstanding diverse international audience they have acquired. Moreover, the existence of a person of colour in any part of the world at any given time is rarely ever implausible. This creates one token role model for each racial or ethnic group, be it Asian kids, Arab kids, Black kids and so on, but there are nine other White princesses for all little girls to look up to, creating a jarring skew in representation. Another problem is that there is a maximum of one film per ethnicity for the Disney films. This creates one idea, one image, one story, for all of the culture. In doing so, one narrative – often lacking any input from the group it represents – becomes dominant and is consumed en masse. This is especially detrimental because very few – if any – counter-narratives exist to challenge this representation.
Some say “actors are simply actors playing imaginary roles.” However, this leads to a post-racial, and cosmopolitan view of ethnicity. But whitewashing has preconceived ideas about certain cultures or races, harming their people greatly. Many people would believe that this issue has gotten better and more roles are cast for their proper race. As much as it pains me to say it, this has sadly not been the case.
By Sherouk Elasfar
Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.